Berlin’s Magnetic Mainstream: St. Oberholz and Friends
It is a grey Saturday afternoon in Berlin. I am sitting in what is surely the capital’s number one hipster Wi-Fi-haven, hypocritically criticising other hipsters for tinkling too loudly on MacBook keyboards, their bearded faces lit by the flattering glow of high definition LCD screens. I have just sunk a large milky Americano; my caffeine-charged eyeballs flit restlessly and disapprovingly from one rolled up trouser leg to the next. Supposedly I am only here to send a few emails, scribble down some thoughts and not hang around. A Wi-Fi hit-and-run, if you will. My disdainful gaze passes over dozens of faces that, in turn, gaze longingly out of the sash windows overlooking Rosenthaler Platz, waiting for a eureka moment while Excel spreadsheets and Soundcloud players jostle for space on their crowded laptop screens.
But, in a moment of terrifying clarity that cuts through my deliriously over-caffeinated state, it dawns on me that I might actually be just like them. At this point I probably ought to confess that this is my second visit to St Oberholz. In a row. Oh God. I have barely been here two weeks and already I can feel myself being pulled in by the whirlpool. Here I am, working on my ‘project’, watching Berlin go by, utterly obedient to the stream.
The café was recommended to me by a friend, whose uncle, an architect living in Prenzlauer Berg (another rather classic Berlin stereotype), apparently has a habit of telling the flaky youths lucky enough to be interning for him to “go back to St. Oberholz you hipster piece of shit”. So I use the term ‘recommended’ loosely.
Naturally, then, my preconceptions were less than positive. But having now spent a total of nearly 8 hours here sitting, drinking and writing, I have to admit that whoever runs this joint has got more than few things very right, and its shameless function of providing a sanctuary for bloggers and other ‘self-employees’ is smartly and stylishly executed.
The café-bar-bistro hybrid sits on two floors, its spacious upper-deck making good use of the building’s high ceilings (an architectural trademark of the city’s eastern precincts) to give the place a sense of understated grandeur. A busy but never chaotic bar whirrs beneath – its fringe lined with Perspex display counters stocking row upon row of freshly-filled bagels, salads, slaws and warm pastries. The combined floors are more or less big enough to preserve some sort of anonymity (and guarantee a spare seat), and yet, with its cosy alcoves and abundant cushions, it just about manages to feel homely. Coffee by day, beer by night, reasonable prices all round: the place is thoroughly inhabitable, seemingly for long periods of time (i.e. an entire working day). Looking around at the concentration on every Mac user’s face, you would forgive someone for momentarily thinking they had walked in on the office of a relaxed but nonetheless impressively disciplined ad agency.
There is a lulling charm to the place, and the deal is simple: unlimited Wi-Fi, unlimited freedom to indulge in ticking the innumerable boxes on your online to-do list and ignore the all-too-banal, all-too-unromantic reality of your unemployment. Sure, while you’re at it why not rid yourself of a few rusty coins and maybe procure a fresh carrot juice. But St. Oberholz is really about you. At least that’s how it feels. Call me a sucker, but I’m looking for privacy and productivity in public, and here, that’s exactly what you get. Right down to the chirpy staff (who do a convincing job of looking like they might actually give a tiny shit whilst serving coffee by the pint), St. Oberholz has a knack of making you feel like you’re getting somewhere every time you visit. Like you’re making real, tangible progress. Somehow, it’s okay that, every day, you walk through the same glass doors, sit in the same cosy corner spot, prop yourself up against the same tastefully arranged paisley-pattern cushions, lift the same laptop’s weary head and hammer down on the same worn-out keys, over and over again, Tag ein Tag aus, like a sort of wonderfully tolerable Groundhog Day.
It occurs to me that where it used to be a matter of rolling up your shirtsleeves and getting stuck in, it seems now to be a question of rolling up your trouser legs and getting logged in. How times have changed. Especially in Berlin.
As night begins to fall on Rosenthaler Platz, I am able to make out my reflection in the window opposite. My silver MacBook sits at the end of a line of six identical models, the inadequacy of my 6-day beard brought gloriously to the fore by the same oracular light that shines so favourably on neighbouring faces. It is the monopoly and conformity of youth that Berlin has lured, captured, branded, and now owns. A tribal generation of freelancers, all equipped with the same tools (Macbook Pro, beanie, tobacco pouch), all marching to the same driving electronic beat, physically motionless but digitally soaring, trying desperately to carve something out in a rare city with resources to spare. St. Oberholz is one of many outposts – a safe-haven for the footloose, a quiet bastion of hipsterdom that keeps Berlin rolling along. And yeah, I’m on board. At least until I get a proper job.
Words + photos both by Arty Froushan
Featured image from http://www.cicero.de